Thursday, 28 April 2016

Electronic Superhighway to Hell

The first two things I saw as I entered the Whitechapel Gallery were a photoshopped, enlarged, ladies bum and a game of Pac-man. This should've given me an idea that what was to come was not your everyday narrative or cookie cutter curatorship.

Korean media art pioneer Nam June Paik coined the term Electronic Superhighway in 1974 and this show focuses on half a century of the interface between art and technology. The fact that the organisers have decided to tell the story backwards from 2016 to 1966 is hardly the most maverick aspect of this brave, if ultimately frustrating, study.

Olaf Breuning's aforementioned Text Butt from 2015 greets you on entry, if you'll excuse the pun, with its critical look at the digital manipulation of images of our own bodies. Generation X novelist Douglas Coupland also, as you may expect, takes an interest into ownership and rights of our own on-line representation and proposes solutions, of sorts, to, possibly uncalled for, facial recognition software in Deep Face (2014), below.

The first room is laid out in higgledy-piggledy fashion which makes it accessible to those who just want to nose around and less so for those who have some grand idea of writing about it afterwards. How to fit in Jon Rafman's lovely, but seemingly unconnected to anything else in the exhibition, Manet Economy Class, above? Why's it here?

I assume because Rafman has dabbled in computer generated arts before. His Zabludowicz show at the back end of last year combined ball crawls, soft porn, and soundtracks from Oneohtrix Point Never. It was very jolly and although the impressionistic train carriage was no doubt generated using modern technology it's not the most cutting edge example imaginable.

Novi Sad's Alexandra Domanovic's recent models of the Belgrade hand made more sense. Seen, at the time (just before the break up of Yugoslavia), as an example of that nation's technological dynamism these model hands now hold universal symbols of peace:- the dove, the yin and yang symbol, that kind of thing.

James Bridle's Homo Sacer is fun. One of those hologram airport ladies who, instead of niceties and advice not to walk up the escalator with your luggage, quote vaguely threatening lines from UK, EU, and UN, legislation about citizenship.

It's a neat piece. As is James Lund's VIP (Viewer Improved Paintings) which lets you, the viewer, to a degree, decide what kind of artwork to look at. It consists of two screens which both reflect different abstracted images. A camera traces which one has caught your attention. As they, and your gaze, change accordingly a computer tracks your preferences with the remit of eventually finding the artwork just right for you.

Of course the technologies and algorithms work just as well as those Facebook 'quizzes' that tell you you look like Brad Pitt, should live in Brazil, and need to marry your sister, but it's diverting enough.

The same could be said for Zach Blas's Queer Technologies (2007-2010). A mocked up showroom that proposes gay bombs and queer anti-programming languages whilst doffing it's leather cap to Derek Jarman at all times.

There are over 100 works on show here by 70+ artists so they're not all gonna get a mention. You'd probably need to stay here the best part of a week just to watch all the different videos. German artist Hito Steyerl's 2007 Red Alert won't detain you long though - and for that be thankful. He simply pays homage to Rodchenko's black square by using three screens of red rectangles referencing our current, almost permanent, state of being at the highest level of terror alert.

Ascending the stairs to the upper galleries signifies, with this exhibition, a trip back in time. The first room you enter is populated with early examples of Net Art which began about '93 when web browsers became widely available and like all technology before and after were subverted to our own ends. Nothing could be more self-explanatory than Aristarkh Chernyshev's Loading. It's simple form an antidote to some of the more pompous efforts available for your perusal.

For example JODI's works about html and Google maps. I found these as confusing as the things they referenced. That may be because I'm an ageing technophobe who puts the battery in his phone upside down. Either way they didn't do much for me. Neither, thankfully, did Ann Hirsch's Twelve which resembles nothing as much as a pre-pubescent girl's bedroom.

After taking the above photo I got out of there as quickly as any middle aged man taking photos of a schoolgirl's bedroom would do.

Only to enter the most perplexing, bewildering room of all. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's plasma screen eye, old computers and software strewn around, and our spirit guide Nam June Paik's 52 monitor Internet Dream from '94 blasting out something that would've given David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth a headache.

It was all getting very confusing. This mish-mash of 60s and 70s video art, Ray Ascott's 'game' of exquisite corpse, jerky jumpy videos, screens, more screens, even more bloody screens. It all got a bit too much. I started to feel like Lorna in Cleveland artist Lynn Hershman Leeson's installation. Freaked out and overwhelmed by sheer data glut and information overload and retreating to a reclusive existence where tv and tv games represent some sort of golden past.

Although that almost definitely wasn't what Leeson intended at the time the LORNA room certainly felt like a sanctuary from the white noise of technology - and as the fictional Lorna was 40 it was probably a more appropriate room for a man of my age to lie low in than the earlier pink one.

After Lorna had nursed me back to health I cautiously stepped into the final room of the show. Respite. Despite Hiroshi Kawano's claims, boasts even, about adopting an IBM 'child' it was mostly full of good old fashioned modern art. Computer generated yes but modern art nonetheless. Vera Molnar's homages to Bela Bartok and Bath's Peter Sedgeley's Coronas from 1970 hung next to Manfred Mohr's digital algorithms. Best still was Roy Ascott's Change Painting (1968), below. A vast improvement on the works of his I'd seen in earlier rooms.

One of the last things you read before leaving is Stan Van Der Beek's 1968 claim that one day in the future we may be able to write a movie on our telephone. That day clearly has come. But we do need to make sure, as we ever did, that the movie we're writing isn't shit.

That same year the Whitechapel itself held an exhibition looking at the interface between technology and art. It was called Cybernetic Serendipity. No doubt many of the patrons enjoyed it. No doubt many of them left utterly bewildered. Much like the exhibition I reach back in time and share both their confusion and fascination.

Everything changes.

Everything stays the same.

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